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Dynamic Path Planning Helps Cobots Succeed at Hella Electronics
The concept of collaborative robots, or cobots, isn't new but it has taken a couple of decades for cobots to become light and agile enough to be attractive for a company like Hella Electronics Corporation.
The solution developed for a pick-and-place station at its facility in Flora, Illinois, where Hella designs and manufactures a range of lighting and electronics products for the fast-moving automotive industry, combines ASSISTA robotic arms from Mitsubishi Electric Automation with visual programming and dynamic path planning from Realtime Robotics. Curtis Garrard, head of Technical Services at Hella, says the success of this application is changing the company's approach to factory automation.
Hella lacked the floor space for a brick-and-motor approach using standard industrial robots. The operator handling the pick-and-place station was also working in a very dynamic environment, with a lot of incoming and outgoing goods and other local support functions in close proximity. That meant human safety and maintaining an acceptable level of performance would both be essential for any cobot solution.
To achieve its goals, Hella employed Realtime Robotics' AI-driven technology, which autonomously choreographs all cobot movements, allowing multiple cobots to work collision-free within a shared space with humans without the need for interference zones. The cobots can function seamlessly across many deployments with minimal programming or reprogramming. The user-centric software allows cell specs to be changed on the fly with only a few clicks, enabling the cobots to rapidly respond to an unexpected operation or variable task without risk to human workers.
Hella Automation Engineer Ralph Barbre says reassigning tasks is simple. "All I have to do is go into the graphical screen and change where a pick point is. In the PLC code, each point is identified by a name. I don't have to reprogram the PLC code. All I have to do is move that point to another location. Realtime Robotics takes care of all of the rest. The cobot just takes off and runs in a matter of a few minutes."
Tim Kalhorn, a Mitsubishi Electric Automation Channel account manager working with Hella, says the ease of visual programming is incredible. "Ten years ago, you almost needed a PhD to program robots. Now, with the graphical programming environment, you could program an ASSISTA cobot from a tablet PC. It uses pinch, zoom, and drag commands."
Tom Munger, director of sales for Realtime Robotics, likens dynamic path planning to the use of GPS in cars. "We simply give the robot a start goal and an end goal and the robot will calculate multiple different paths to get there. If an obstacle is recognized along one path, the robot will evaluate what other paths it can take that would result in a non-collision behavior."
And it's not only another robot that might force a different path. It could also be a human entering the robot's workspace. Ultimately, that's what enables the ASSISTA cobot to be truly collaborative with a human employee. It can handle the awkward, risky or tedious tasks while the employee works safely alongside to manage the operation and do other tasks.
Hella's Garrard notes that letting robots take over some work is good for business, and good for Hella employees. "A lot of people don't take into account what an injury costs your business. Put a collaborative robot where maybe an operator would be doing some weird twisting, turning or very, very repetitive tasks and you mitigate that risk from an injury standpoint."
At a time of severe worker shortages, which was a problem for companies even before the COVID-19 lockdown, Garrard says cobots like the Mitsubishi Electric Automation ASSISTA have helped Hella find and retain good employees because they make factory floor jobs safer and more attractive to potential employees.
To hear the rest of this story, and learn how Mitsubishi Electric Automation cobots and Realtime Robotics could help solve problems at your factory, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB4nG_k7Jm4
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